The citizen takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last month led by the Bundy family of Nevada is intriguing on several levels. The Bundys came to national attention a couple of years ago in their standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. The siege they conducted in Oregon was wrong, but their grievance with the mistreatment of a ranching family by the government was valid on several counts. But to me the main issue highlighted here is the vast ownership of land by the federal government in the first place.
The federal government owns about 28% of the land in the U. S., but it owns over 50% of the land west of the Mississippi River excluding Texas, which kept its land when entering the union. For example, the federal government owns 85% of Nevada, 65% of Utah, 62% of Idaho, 61% of Alaska, 53% of Oregon, 48% of Wyoming, and 46% of California, compared to 2% of Texas, which was purchased by the federal government for national parks and forests after it became a state.
There is a theory, call it an ideology, that land owned by the government is owned by “the people” in common. But there is another, in my opinion more valid theory, that ownership in common is ownership by no one, and this is the “tragedy of the commons” that individuals acting independently and rationally according to their own self interest behave contrary to the interests of the whole by depleting the commons.
In the 19th century, there was a tendency to encourage settlement of the West through federal land disposal. Then in the 20th century the emphasis shifted to retention of federal land. This is a continuing debate, but I believe that we would be better served by the significant disposal of federal land to private ownership on an orderly basis of regular auctions over a period of years. This will reduce the national debt, greatly enhance the productivity of the real estate, improve environmental stewardship, and provide incentives for enormous economic growth.